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Sex Education - If you can't defeat porn, take the harm out of it

Teens won't stop watching, guidance says, so help them to stay safe

Teens won't stop watching, guidance says, so help them to stay safe

Teachers should not attempt to stop teenagers watching pornography online, but instead help them to understand the differences between "distorted images of sex" and real-life relationships, according to new guidelines on sex education.

Ready access to explicit material has created significant problems, including cyberbullying and exploitation of young people, the advice for schools in England states.

But it is unrealistic to try to stop children viewing pornography or "sexting" (sending explicit text messages), so teachers should instead teach young people how to remain safe online, the authors of the guidance say.

The document, which is launched today, is the first update to official advice regarding sex and relationships education (SRE) in 14 years. The guidance has been drawn up by sexual health advice charity Brook, the Sex Education Forum, and personal, social and health education body the PSHE Association. It is backed by the Department for Education.

Gill Frances, who worked on the project for Brook, said it was vital that teachers were realistic about the kind of material that young people accessed. "You can't stop people driving fast, so you teach children to cross the road with the Green Cross Code in mind," she said. "[With SRE] I think it's our solemn moral duty to prepare children for the life they live now, not in the 1950s or the 1960s."

Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, said: "Technology is without doubt the single biggest issue that's changed the way that young people understand themselves and their relationship with others. But with everything that's good, there come challenges."

The distorted images of bodies and sex in porn can make watching it a confusing and frightening experience for students, the guidance states.

It recommends that primary children are taught about body image and consent, with a focus on the importance of respectful relationships. By secondary school, discussion about pornography can be incorporated into lessons on resisting peer pressure and not coercing partners into anything that makes them uncomfortable. Similarly, discussion of "sexting" could be incorporated into a broader lesson about issues of privacy, boundaries and abuse.

Drawing on concerns raised by teachers and students, the guidance also covers topics such as abuse, violent relationships and female genital mutilation (FGM), as well as recognising that one in 10 students is likely to be gay.

Existing government advice on SRE was drawn up in 2000, a decade before the Equality Act 2010, which requires schools to ensure that teaching is accessible to all students, whatever their sexual orientation. The new guidance advises teachers to refer to "partner", rather than "boyfriend" or "girlfriend", to incorporate same-sex relationships in discussions and to encourage boys and girls to explore topics from each others' viewpoints.

A recent survey by gay rights charity Stonewall shows that 85 per cent of students in the UK are not taught about the biological or physical aspects of same-sex relationships at school. And a survey by ChildLine reveals that almost two-thirds of teenagers have been asked to make and send a sexual image of themselves. One in three girls between the ages of 16 and 18 have been physically harassed at school.

"In the very early years, we should talk about public and private parts of the body," Ms Frances said. "Children know that no one should ever touch the private parts of the body."

Such early work provides students with the language to discuss abuse, violence and FGM. "FGM is illegal, as is forcing someone to have sex," Ms Frances said. "It's really, really important to say that these things happen to some people, and what's important is that those people should know where to go."

The new guidance is a counterpoint to the growing trend in the US and, more recently, in the UK of teaching students about sexual abstinence.

"The thing about the abstinence movement is that it's not sex education," Ms Frances said. "It's telling you not to have sex, and all the evidence proves that it doesn't actually work in terms of delaying sex."

Figures released this week show that the number of teenage pregnancies in England and Wales has dropped to its lowest rate since records began in 1969, at 27.9 conceptions per 1,000 women aged 15-17.

The SRE guidance has received backing from education, health and welfare organisations, including teaching unions, children's charity the NSPCC and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is part of the police.

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